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The Fish Can Sing

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  1,660 ratings  ·  239 reviews
The Fish Can Sing is one of Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness’s most beloved novels, a poignant coming-of-age tale marked with his peculiar blend of light irony and dark humor.

The orphan Alfgrimur has spent an idyllic childhood sheltered in the simple turf cottage of a generous and eccentric elderly couple. Alfgrimur dreams only of becoming a fisherman like his adoptive g
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Paperback, 246 pages
Published September 28th 2001 by Vintage Classics (first published 1957)
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3.89  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,660 ratings  ·  239 reviews


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Dolors
Sep 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Listen to the wind
Recommended to Dolors by: Ema
Shelves: read-in-2016
Laxness brings together a catalog of eccentric characters and peculiar anecdotes to tell the story of Algrimur, an orphan taken in by an elderly couple that becomes his only family in a tiny village in the outskirts of Reykyjavík.
In the turf cottage where Algrimur grows up, a disparate crew of extravagant guests gathers at night. The impoverished farmers, fishermen and shepherds get transformed into vagrant-soothsayers, quack-philosophers, sea captains and specialists in cesspools, who sit by t
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Ema
Apr 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The fish can sing just like a bird,
And grazes on the moorland scree,
While cattle in a lowing herd
Roam the rolling sea.


Starting from this Icelandic paradox put in verse, Halldór Laxness weaves an enchanting tale on the outskirts of Reykjavík, in a time when the price of a Bible was equal to that of a heifer and people still tried to cure headaches by smearing their faces with warm cow-dung. Some say that The Fish Can Sing is a coming-of-age novel, but I don't really see it that way; it is more th
...more
Meike
Nov 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018-read, iceland
Two years after being awarded the Nobel Prize, Laxness published this bildungsroman about the young Icelander Álfgrímur whose coming-of-age at the beginning of the 20th century coincides with the advancement of capitalist modernity in Iceland. Abandoned by his mother, Álfgrímur grows up with loving fostergrandparents in a cottage named Brekkukot in Reykjavik (the Icelandic original of the book is called "The Annals of Brekkukot"). His fostergrandfather Björn works as a fisherman, never demanding ...more
Ray
Jan 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
A gentle comedy set in pre independence Iceland.

Alfgrimur is abandoned as a baby and is brought up in a run down shack on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Passing through the house are a motley bunch of deadbeat lodgers and wacky characters. Most intriguing of all is Gardar Holm, the son of a neighbour. He is a local boy made good overseas as a world renowned singer ....... or is he.

Gardar flits in and out of the boys life during fleeting return trips home, almost but not quite giving a concert to h
...more
Dagný
Jul 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the same book as, in the English version, is called The Fish Can Sing

This is very possibly the best book ever written.

Forgive my fretting about translations, I didn't want people to miss a thing. Then I realized that the books' tone, that true tone, will reach through all human languages.

The story is set in Reykjavik in the beginning of the 20th century. These are reminiscences about a boyhood spent with an old couple who adopt this abandoned baby in the same manner they welcome several
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Antonomasia
Jan 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Loved the earlier part of the book, an Icelandic Cider with Rosie, not so much the latter. That could have had something to do with struggling through the second half in the haze of a seemingly random, day-long migraine-like headache and aftermath. I could see the story was *good*, but wasn't on board with its particular brand of bittersweet illusion-shattering enterprise.

It's going to be easiest to discuss this after quoting the blurb:
Abandoned as a baby, Álfgrímur is content to spend his days
...more
david
May 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
...and swim underwater, for a really long time.

Great stuff from this Icelander.
Friederike Knabe
Feb 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: european-lit
Halldór Laxness is undoubtedly Iceland's most famous writer. The story goes that he was in the middle of writing "Brekkukotsannall" - translated (surprisingly) as The Fish Can Sing - when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1955). Did this recognition change the way he completed the novel? May be, maybe not. Still, reading it with that knowledge in the back of my mind, the novel turns for me into much more that the intimate portrait of a "family", a small village community at the t ...more
Lorenzo Berardi
Reykjavik today is such an interesting place. Half spartan northern outpost, half ambitious capital of a scarcely populated but not diminutive country, the biggest (and some say only) town in Iceland welcomed your humble reviewer in style.

Bygone the hectic days of the financial and real estate bubble followed by the economic crisis that lead the local currency to lose a good deal of its value overnight and the national government to fall, Reykjavik is slowly recovering. Quite reluctantly, many
...more
Sanja_Sanjalica
Apr 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nordic
I have a feeling that I describe every other Icelandic book as weird. This is one of those as well. Maybe just call it Icelandic weird (a good kind of weird). The pace is quite slow, you can actually read it as short stories in the majority of chapters, since the main character usually describes people and their life stories. The style of writing is really captivating and beautiful, it really transported me to another time and space. I took me a long time to finish this book, but that's only bec ...more
Jo
Dec 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
It took me fifty pages or so to get into this novel as I think I was expecting something more plot driven but the book is a more of a memoir of Alfgrimur, an orphan taken in by two loving older people to live with them in this small prescribed area in Rekyajik where everyone knows everyone else. It is also about Gardar Holm, the opera singer who has gone out into the wide world to achieve fame for Iceland, someone who is revered and respected yet has secrets that remain only hinted at even by th ...more
Carolyn
Jul 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I am indulging myself by re-reading this literary gem, and what a perfect book it is. It is a gentle, humorous coming-of-age narrative written in the first person set in the early 1900s. Reykjavik was only a town of 5,000 people, and the farm Brekkukot was situated right on the edge of the current cbd.
It is a simple story, beautifully told, of a young boy Alfgrimur, left by his mother on her way to America. He is fostered by Bjorn and his wife, the elderly couple whose farm is a haven and home f
...more
Stela
Apr 27, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Stela by: Ema

“Where fish leaves off in Iceland, Latin takes over”

I know I am unjust with my three-star rating, but The Fish Can Sing is one of those books I’ve instantly recognized the literary value of, but I couldn’t care much for. Moreover, it constantly reminded me of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (I hear some heartfelt protests here!) in a bizarre, twisted kind of way, not only because I had the same mixed feelings about that one too, but also because it is its total opposite: instead of a rich, overc
...more
Abi
Feb 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those looking for interesting and original writing
My second Laxness novel after Independent People, this is lighter in subject matter, and more lyrical in style. It is a charming novel dealing with the coming of age of Álfgrímur, an orphan brought up by his 'grandparents' in a small village in Iceland (Reykjavík, in the days when it was a small village). It is not your typical coming of age novel though; it is profoundly odd in a way that is difficult to explain but that stems mainly from the mysterious Garðar Hólm, the singer reminiscent in so ...more
Katie
Aug 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I want to re-read this book already. I read it in Iceland, continuing my vow to read only local authors when I travel the world. Sitting on top of an Icelandic mountain, surrounded by sheep covered in that famous wool, looking out over the ocean, and reading this superb little book of stories, was just about the happiest I have ever been. He is beyond comparison, but Laxness can perhaps be likened to Hemingway, if Hemingway liked people. Laxness loves them. He loves the lessons they teach each o ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Blasphemy, but I feel like in reading one book by Laxness I kind of have him covered. He gets repetitive in his patterns and it makes the actual plot in his novels take a long time to get to.

But one of my rules in speed dating my collection is being willing to say NOPE.
Michelle
Jul 21, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a strange and bewildering book! I started it eagerly, then languished a bit in its digressive opening chapters. After ignoring it for a few weeks, I moved it to my 'on hold' shelf – usually the kiss of death – only to pick it up again and find myself drawn in. The story is narrated by a young boy, Alfgrímur, growing up under the care of his adoptive grandparents, who are principled, hardworking, poor, and generous to the point of recklessness. Their seaside cottage outside Reykjavik (still, ...more
Calzean
A Wonderful portrait of the simple life in a small village near Reykjavik in the days when bibles cost a cow, the need for a barber shop was a point of much debate, fables, little people and simplicity ruled.

It traces the early life of a boy abandoned at birth and reared by two old people who share their poor abode with a great set of mad characters. There is a mysterious famous opera singer, kind people and a few ambitious people.

There's a lot going on this part-saga, part-historical piece. Gre
...more
Leif
Aug 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I cannot speak highly enough about this book. It is marbled through with a deep and abiding concern for the welfare of the fame-less multitude, those individuals who live unnoticed and on what seem to others like the margins of life. It also breaks apart its thematic heart upon the bait-and-switch of the idea of a single, pure note: a moment of perfection that will justify everything and all in a person's life, if only - when only - it occurs. But if, and when?
If people adhere to the doctrine th
...more
Justin Evans
Mar 09, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Solid, if a bit unfocused. I confess I'm not very keen on short novels that have digressions in them; if you're going to digress, do it properly! Or just write a great novella about a young man's artistic awakening, and his attempt to square the urge to create art with the certain knowledge that you're going to fail.
Richard Levine
Dec 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
An off-beat, amusing, and somewhat sweet novel, The Fish Can Sing was very different from the only other Laxness novel I've read, Independent People, which I recall as powerful and bleak. This is much more of a gentle, comic tale, a coming-of-age story filled with odd characters who speak in wry, almost mystical Icelandic aphorisms. It's kind of like an Icelandic Great Expectations, but with a simpler plot, less action, and more fish.
Neal Adolph
Jan 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
After having finished this novel this morning, I'm grateful for it.

The Fish Can Sing is the story of a building, community, and place in Iceland that is a part of the growing city of Reykjavik. This place is changing rapidly, even though the protagonist - a young boy named Alfgrimur - is mostly unaware of the changes because his adopted grandmother and grandfather live very traditional lives. They impart a great deal of wisdom to Alfgrimur because of their traditions - morals about life, love, m
...more
Beth Asmaa
Mar 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Nobel Laureate literature
Recommended to Beth Asmaa by: Maggie
Many reviews are very ecstatic about this coming-of-age novel, set in Iceland. That genre generally is not my first choice in reading. Nevertheless, the main character Alfgrímur is quite mature, having a firm mind and knowing the value of self-worth, just needing some guidance about the larger world. It seems that several characters speak about the "one pure note". Even the clock chimes it as the syllables of "eternity" and the old pastor is certain of it daily. The opera singer Gárdár Holm desc ...more
Guttersnipe Das
Jun 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
For years now I’ve loved the work of Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s pre-eminent man of letters, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 but now is seldom read. I am forever thrusting his books upon people and begging them to read him at once. Usually I urge them to start with “Independent People”, which is regarded as his masterpiece.

This does not always go well.

One of my friends complained, “It’s 500 pages about sheep farming!”

I said, “Yes. It is 500 UTTERLY SCINTILLATING pages about sheep
...more
Matt
Dec 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
I gave a copy of 'Under the Glacier' by Laxness as a Christmas gift. But I would not give 'The Fish Can Sing' as a gift. For 'Fish' it takes awhile to see the merit or brilliance in it. I'm aware things went over my head to, it's easy to get lost in the paragrahs, but I think this worth reading, and I realize merit even though I had difficulty with it.
'Under the Glacier' is so bizarre and funny because of how outlandish the content is. This is bizarre too, but a more subtle bizarre. For the firs
...more
Sylvester
May 06, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: quirky-families, 2015
I've been wanting to read "Independent People" for ages, but this title was much more appealing so I read this instead. It was harder to read than I expected, some bits were delightful, other times I wasn't sure what Laxness was getting at - I'm not sure if this is a translation thing or simply his style. He can be clear as a bell, and then obfuscate to the point that I want to quit. It's odd, too, leafing through the book after I finished it I saw little moments here and there that glinted at m ...more
Sian Lile-Pastore
Nov 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
I read this because i got all icelandy after reading Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland. Laxness is 'the undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic fiction and one of the outstanding novelists of the twentieth century', so you'd have to be an idiot not to like this right?

I'm that idiot.


It is beautifully written and has a sweet sort of quiet feel to it, and I like reading about coffee and cake.... but... I found it so slow! and I just wanted it to end. There is a lot about lumpfish in this
...more
Alan
May 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels
Vastly enjoyable portrait of a bunch of eccentrics living in Reykjavik before it was called that, in a time when cow dung poultices were used to cure headaches and the old ballads were still sung. Singing is the main theme, as the singer Gardar Holm is Iceland's ambassador abroad, and the townspeople relate tales of him filling vast concert halls all around the world and winning awards. The main protagonist Alfgrimur becomes his protege as he grows up and searches for the 'one true note', and Ho ...more
Jessi
Apr 29, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: book-club-book
I know that this book is very well regarded but I was bored. It's very flowery language, well-interpreted but bo-o-o-ring. The other women in the Tumbleweed bookclub liked it alot (except Lisa, she agreed with me). This is a wonderful glimpse into 1950s Icleand and, if you can slog through the entire book, a great ending but dear good in heaven, you have to work for it.
scarlettraces
Sep 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is funny*. Was Laxness always this funny? I don't remember Independent People and Iceland's Bell being particularly amusing, but maybe I'm developing subtlety in my middle years.

*and tragic, naturally.
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Born Halldór Guðjónsson, he adopted the surname Laxness in honour of Laxnes in Mosfellssveit where he grew up, his family having moved from Reyjavík in 1905. He published his first novel at the age of only 17, the beginning of a long literary career of more than 60 books, including novels, short stories, poetry, and plays. Confirmed a Catholic in 1923, he later moved away from religion and for a l ...more
“A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father.” 7 likes
“If he believed it all, he was just like those theologians who store their theology somewhere in a locked compartment of the brain, or rather, perhaps, like those travellers who carry a bottle of iodine in their luggage and take care to keep it tightly corked in case it leaks and ruins their belongings.” 5 likes
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